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Carnival – the History and Experience Behind the Party

The traditions behind Carnival are thought to have started during BC times as a celebration of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. This festival was then adopted by the Romans for their equivalent wine god, Bacchus. As Catholicism started to spread throughout Europe in the second century, many Pagan traditions were adopted by the Church to encourage conversion. This included the foundation of what is today known as Mardi Gras or Carnival, depending on where in the world it is celebrated. The festival is held a few days prior to Lent and ends with “Shrove Tuesday,” or “Fat Tuesday.”  While originally established by the Catholic Church, the festival soon transitioned into a more secular celebration, eventually facilitating its transformation into a cultural phenomenon. As such, the traditions of Carnival spread wherever European Catholic settlers went, including South America and the Caribbean. The term Carnival comes from the Latin phrase; carnem levare, which translates to “remove meat,” as meat was originally forbidden during the entirety of Lent.

Arguably, the biggest and most well-known Carnival is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The five-day festival attracts over two million tourists to the city each year. A staple of this festival is called blocos, which consists of hundreds of street parties during the day and night, where it almost feels like the entire city shuts down to celebrate for a long weekend. The highlight of the weekend is a samba parade that takes place in the Sambodromo – essentially a stadium just for samba dancing in the middle of Rio. The stadium holds over 80,000 spectators and can have up to 5,000 performers dancing simultaneously. During the weekend of Carnival, twelve of the best samba schools are selected to perform with elaborate costumes and floats. It is quite the spectacle to watch the dancers samba down the nearly half-mile long stadium. Indeed, there is nothing quite like it to make one acutely aware of one’s own lack of rhythm…

I headed down to Brazil this February for my first Carnival and wow…it was quite the experience. There are people dancing and partying at all hours, in the most interesting costumes. The biggest part of the festival, and my personal favorite, are the blocos. Every day we would wake up and put on ridiculous outfits to revel in the streets. Locals were selling beer and different mixed drinks, in what felt like, every couple of feet. Every bloco had a live samba band that would initially play in a designated spot, but would then hop on a truck, and lead the party down the street. Thousands of people would follow the truck clapping, dancing, and singing. The day bloco would last two to three hours and then we would head home, change, reapply our glitter, and head to a night bloco. At first, I felt ridiculous dressing up, but you almost feel out of place if you don’t. I cannot remember the last time I wore glitter, yet it found its way on my face and body (and by extension, on all my belongings) through the entirety of the festival. 

While in Rio, the biggest concern for me and my friends was being robbed. The frequent larcenies that take place during Carnival is mind-boggling. I witnessed four phones being snatched from the owners’ hands, as well as a  friend having both his pockets picked, simultaneously. Later that night, his watch had also somehow walked off his wrist. It was not a great day for him. I transitioned from being in a sort of naivety at the beginning of my trip, to being on a high-level of perpetual suspicion by the end. That amount of alertness, combined with luck, enabled me to come home with all my possessions.

The five days were hard work, as that much revelry takes dedication. One could argue that it was more strenuous than working full time and going to school in the evenings! I came home exhausted, without a voice, and glitter permanently stuck on all my belongings. Carnival…not for the faint of heart, but what a thrill.

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